Previously on the Subversive Archaeologist…
I was critical of the recent claims from Oman having to do with a until-now unknown ‘extension’ into the Arabian Peninsula of the Nubian Type 2 Middle Stone Age lithic technology. However much you may disagree with my ire-filled assessment of these claims, you may not be able to ignore what I have to say about the mind-set that in all likelihood contributed to the claims, and which underlies many assemblage-level discussions among Middle Palaeolithic archaeologists.
The fundamental problem is typological. That is, how and why a given piece of modified stone is grouped with others similarly defined, and how those are distinguished from other groups identified using the same method. François Bordes viewed pieces of worked stone from a purely formal perspective. For this reason he paid less attention to the steps ancient flint-knappers took during manufacture of any given artifact.
Archaeologists of modern humans can easily distinguish a used flake from a retouched flake, a formed tool from a core, or a flake core from a blade core. Bordes was confronted by a welter of shapes and technological pathways to the European Middle Palaeolithic (Mousterian) artifacts he was faced with characterizing. [Have a look here for some examples of the variability.] It led him, ultimately, to name dozens of distinct Mousterian so-called types–a far greater number than he would ever have recognized in any assemblage associated with modern humans. As he would have done with assemblages from more recent times, his only choice was to characterize each according to the relative frequency of each type and category of type–e.g. flake, point, or blade; handaxe or Levallois core.
Furthermore, Bordes saw what he thought was structured variability between assemblages he characterized in his unique way–both within and between sites. In the end he saw five different assemblage types that he named Typical Mousterian (with the broadest representation of his ‘types’), Charentian Mousterian (conflating the Ferrassie and Quina Mousterian assemblage types, which display steep retouch and fewer of the Bordesian types), Denticulate Mousterian (lots of flakes with retouch, leaving margins resembling teeth), Mousterian of Acheulian Tradition A (high numbers of handaxes) and Mousterian of Acheulian Tradition B (with handaxes, but fewer in number or smaller in size, or both, than in the MAT A).
In other words, in a stratified MP site he sometimes recovered different examples of the five assemblage types in superposition. Bordes fastened on the notion that the variability was the result of culturally distinct groups of Neanderthals whose territorial boundaries had shifted through time. If you’re familiar with the history of archaeology in the twentieth century you’ll remember the long-running debate between Bordes and Lew and (mostly) Sally Binford over MP inter-assemblage variability. Sally Binford posited the notion that Bordes’ five assemblage types might instead reflect the changing use of a site through time, the so-called ‘functional’ explanation. [Wow! I just found this article while scrounging for images on Google. If you’re interested, this set of Sally Binford’s reminiscences should make you rethink Lew Binford’s career and his person. Talk about ‘Revelations’! This is apocalyptic.]
Sadly, neither Bordes nor the Binfords examined the theoretical underpinnings of Bordes’ typology. Had they done so, and had they arrived at the same conclusion that Harold Dibble did in the mid-1980s, they would have realized that the entire argument was rather like contemplating the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Dibble, a flint-knapper of no small talent himself, perceived a chink in the facade of Bordes’ artifact classification. He reasoned that the artifacts Bordes saw as finished end-products were, as likely as not, just pieces of stone that had gone through a predictable reduction sequence that depended on the starting shape of the flake. Thus, if one recovered an artifact that Bordes would have seen as a tool that needed two convergent, convex, retouched lateral margins, Dibble could show where, at an earlier stage in the artifact’s life history, it would have been assigned to a different one of Bordes’ types–in other words, if it had been discarded at an earlier stage of reduction instead of retouched further. This meant that a number of Bordes ‘types’ were essentially in the mind of the typologist. In effect, Bordes’ scheme is still useful in a purely technological sense, but it falls down in its ability to reflect the mind of the Mousterian flint-knappers with respect to the intended end-product in the life of a flake.
In reality, Dibble was recognizing what was later referred to as the Finished Artifact Fallacy. However, as far as I know, Dibble’s insight has never been taken to its logical conclusion–that of dismantling the notion of Mousterian artifact types–nor has it led to a general examination of some other typological constructs associated with Middle Palaeolithic archaeology, such as the Levallois technique and the handaxe. Dibble and his colleague Nicolas Rolland did suggest that, as a result of Dibbles’ deconstruction of Bordes’ artifact types the various Mousterian assemblage types were very likely to have been nothing but a house of cards.
A very few (Davidson, Noble and I, in a small way) have attempted to flag the handaxe and the Levallois as classifications that are as susceptible to a take-down similar to Dibbles’, but it’s really hard to be heard when you’re talking into a prodigious head-wind of mostly hot air.
Which brings me to the issue of the Nubian Complex, ‘a regionally distinct Middle Stone Age (MSA) technocomplex first reported from the northern Sudan in the late 1960 s [sic],’ and its recent discovery in Oman at the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Aside from other problematic matters,* Rose and Marks’s discussion of the Nubian of Oman is based on the premise that one can compare MP assemblages based on the proportional representation of artifact types so classified using questionable assumptions of what a type is (or represents). Rose et al. report on excavations of lag deposits from various localities in Oman and, using a classification system that roughly mirrors that of Bordes’ original MP typology, purport to describe a movement out of Africa on the part of the inhabitants of what’s now the Sudan (previously Nubia).
This post has gotten far longer than I intended, and so I’ll leave you now with a promise to bring in visual, numerical and analytical support for my critique of the Oman results in a future post. In the meantime, have a think about what I’ve said, and if I’ve misspoken, or if you simply disagree, I’d very much like to hear from you, and hear your reasons.
* Such as the characterization of an assemblage from what is clearly a time-averaged accumulation of heavier particles in a depositional context dominated by aeolian deflation–in other words lag deposits, which are notoriously difficult to characterize simply because there is no way of knowing the temporal relationships between and among its different constituents.